I live in an economically depressed Rust Belt city. One of the things that came as a shock for the first few months was the vast quantity of able bodied adults who spend normal business hours wandering the city doing god-knows-what. This is to be expected, of course, given that there are hardly any jobs to be had here and even fewer worth having. Like most places that fall on hard times, there is a powerful feeling of idleness here (which I contribute to during the summer months by working without a fixed schedule). I might be making unwarranted assumptions; for example, some of the people doing nothing in particular by day may work at night. Nonetheless, let's tilt the rhetorical playing field in favor of the "Get a job, you bums!" argument and assume that they're unemployed.
We are told constantly that even if the jobs available are minimum wage, 30 hour per week ones that won't earn us enough to meet ends, we should work to experience the "dignity of work." I've been hearing that phrase since I was old enough to understand it. Paul Ryan likes to say it a lot, as does any other right-wing gasbag worth his think tank paychecks. The theory appears to be that even if you're staggeringly poor, you should work because, like, it will build your character or something. You'll feel rewarded and motivated and productive and then your life will start to improve. I think. The trope is usually followed with a reminder that the Economics for Tots version of capitalism dictates that if you work hard, your rewards will increase over time.
Whenever I hear this I wonder if anyone – rich, poor, Unitarian, etc. – actually feels this way. Is the feeling we have at our jobs accurately described as "dignity"? Most jobs, especially the service industry type most likely available in a place like this, treat people with the antithesis of dignity. They are degrading, occasionally humiliating. Your employer and the people you serve will both treat you like shit a lot of the time. And you will find that, surprisingly, working harder doesn't necessarily lead to making more money or getting a less terrible job. Working harder just makes your employer better off. Even if the job is pleasant you'll find that living on minimum wage isn't exactly a dignified experience.
Look, I get it. I get the Protestant Ethic thing, the idea that being productive in some way is good for us. Personally I find being inactive, unproductive, and idle to be tremendously depressing. I feel bad about myself when it happens. At the same time, we should all feel comfortable embracing the fact that jobs are mostly terrible. Working may give us dignity, but being at work certainly doesn't. A job is a thing we do to make a living, not a conduit for spiritual advancement. Reducing unemployment would be great, but can we drop the Cotton Mather bullshit?
The most obvious flaw in the "dignity of work" argument (aside from the reality of how little actual work the super-wealthy do on a daily basis) is embedded in conservatives' own rhetoric about minimum wage employment. These jobs, they remind us, are not really meant to provide someone with a living. Fast food and retail jobs are for high school kids to make some extra spending money part time for a few years before moving on to something more substantial. To close the circle of illogic, then, the people I see wandering around at 2 PM on a Tuesday afternoon should go get a job at McDonald's to experience the Dignity of Work, even though that job does not, and is not intended to, pay enough for an adult to make a living. Cool.
I'd agree that work, in the sense of a purpose or goal toward which we direct ourselves, contributes to giving life meaning and purpose. There is dignity to be found in that kind of work. What people like Paul Ryan do is conflate "work" and "job", distorting the phrase to the point of making it meaningless at best and false at worst. If anyone has found dignity in waiting tables at Denny's and getting stiffed on tips I'd like to meet them.